The perils of persuasion

On graduation, I found the business world laughable. I saw otherwise intelligent people wrapped up in circular rituals of ‘doing business’, oblivious to customer disinterest. My cynicism lasted until I discovered user-centred design and realised there were others who shared my viewpoint. From that point, I saw user experience as a refreshing break from the almost Fordist attitudes I’d witnessed, where business tried to create the market and efficient production appeared more important than demand.

My mindset was naive, but I stand by the principle. One of the things that excites me about UCD is that it isn’t only a mode of design: its values amplify the voice of those previously ignored, who now form part of our network economy.

The success of UCD has sustained demand for user experience design skills, and the land rush has continued in 2010. UX is becoming a cookie cutter add-on for digital agencies and I rarely meet a web designer now who doesn’t claim UX proficiency, although not all can articulate what that means. And it’s not just the designers: I also see back-end developers,SEO professionals and marketers rapidly appending these two magical letters to their CVs.

Many of these people do have genuine user empathy and knowledge of the diverse skills required of UX design. Many do not. I welcome them to the field regardless and hope we can all learn from each other. However, I am concerned at the expansion of the User Experience label to include activities I see as contrary to the values of user empowerment. In particular, I’m worried about persuasion design. Although it’s a powerful and topical approach, I also believe it has the potential to severely damage our industry.

A political model of design

Interaction designers often advocate design as an agent of behaviour change. Jesse James Garrett frames this as an extension of the classic information architecture v interaction design debate, with IA optimising for the way people think, and IxD attempting to drive particular user actions.

When I try to make sense of this struggle, the crude model I keep returning to is a political spectrum. User-centred design, empathetic and inclusive, sits left of centre. Persuasion design, individualised and competitive, sits right of centre.

As with politics, one’s stance is a matter of preference and most mainstream modes are appropriate. The problems lie in the extremes: let’s call them radical UCD and radical persuasion design.

Radical UCD

Under radical UCD, the user’s priorities outweigh others. It’s here that we see the notion of design ‘dissolving into behaviour’ realised. Design becomes an ethically neutral activity whose role is to amplify and liberate the end user. The rewards are intangible, long-term and altruistic: we hope to engender loyalty and word of mouth referrals, but the effects are notoriously hard to measure.

However, as with the political equivalent, radical UCD is economically unrealistic and unworkable. At this extreme, design could only cause consensus-building timidity that reinforces current modes – an accusation already pointed at milder contemporary user-centred practice.

Radical persuasion design

Persuasion design doesn’t share UCD’s ethical neutrality. Instead, it makes an implicit but undeniable judgment that certain behaviours are preferable to others. We need only look at the vocabulary of persuasion design to see this. Jon Kolko’s infamous Johnny Holland article talks of design’s contribution “to the behaviour of the masses, [helping to] define the culture of our society.”

While I respect Jon’s intellect, I find this to be dangerous rhetoric from which we can draw uncomfortable parody: Fear not, huddled masses – the design elite will lead you to the promised land. Persuasion design’s assured ethical superiority is unfortunate. Although some of the cases put forward are compelling – guiding people toward better macroscopic decisions about environment, health etc – we must recognise that, for all the good deeds behaviour change can encourage, it is prone to murkier applications.

What privileges the designer to dictate desired behaviour? And since we’re for hire, does that mean we’re ethical relativists, bending people toward whatever agenda lines our pockets?

Whomever the paymaster, the common pattern I observe in digital persuasion design is that its values are uniformly technocratic. Science is better than faith. Action is better than reflection. Progress is better than the status quo. These values strike me as practically Futurist and, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I’m concerned that radical persuasion design is vulnerable to similar autocratic pitfalls as the Futurists themselves.

Persuasion design is marketing. UX isn’t.

I have struggled for months to unify my understanding of these two political wings, and now conclude that I cannot. I believe that persuasion design is not part of user experience design. It is marketing. Persuasion design prioritises business goals above those of the user, and its values are irreconcilable with empathy, the central value of UX.

That’s not to say that persuasion design isn’t highly valuable and attractive to business. After all, it matches the recognised business patterns of marketing, making its effects felt in tangible measures that UCD’s intangible altruism cannot: conversion rates, signups, and so on.

I subscribe to Peter Drucker‘s view that business has only two functions: innovation and marketing. Under this model, user experience design is innovation. It uncovers people’s needs and and gives makers the knowledge to develop new products and services that meet those needs.

This, finally, is why I disagree with Josh Porter’s assertion that UX is really just good marketing – however, my disagreement isn’t with his framing of marketing, but of user experience. As far as persuasion design is concerned, he is right – but the equation does not apply to UCD and UX.

Opinions and unwinnable arguments

I am of course straying close to two notoriously unwinnable arguments: semantics and politics. I have neither time nor inclination to enter into political debate or vanish down the rabbithole of Defining The Damn Thing, and I am all too aware that, like any model, the one I give is simplistic. It overlooks the complexities of authoritarianism and liberalism, which are not necessarily tied to economic left or right, and belies the greys that lie between black and white. I raise it instead as a way to highlight the risky territory I believe we are heading toward. All I ask is that the community considers these issues carefully and reaches its own conclusions. I’m happy if those differ from mine.

Even if my thoughts turn out to be at odds with those of the broader UX community, I’ll take heart from the words of Dieter Rams, who also took a stance against the involvement of persuasive techniques:

Braun categorically rejects the idea of motivating people to buy its products by adding features that toy with the psychological sub-terrain of the consumer’s consciousness. Braun refuses to swell sales by exploiting human frailties: neither its products nor its advertising use such seduction techniques.

Those who wish to employ persuasive techniques are welcome to do so. But my focus continues to be on striving to make better products by listening, not driving behaviour change. At times I will use tactics from the persuasion design toolkit, as I do with other tools of marketing, but I will do so only when I have fully considered the ethical implications. I hope that others will do the same.

[Minor edits to fix incorrect refs and typos, May 2017.]

Cennydd Bowles